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When You Kant Figure It Out, Ask a Philosopher
Timeless Wisdom for Modern Dilemmas
By Marie Robert
Read by Christine Lakin
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- Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
- ebook $12.99 $16.99 CAD
- Hardcover $20.00 $26.00 CAD
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Spinoza Goes to IKEA
Or, the Problem with Desires
It’s 9:54 a.m. on a Saturday. You wake up filled with joy, knowing you have the next forty-eight hours all to yourself—two entire days to do whatever your heart desires. You’ll catch up on your favorite Netflix shows, drink a leisurely coffee, have dinner with friends; you might even be good and go to the gym. You lie in bed for a few more moments until your gaze falls on your bookshelf. Yikes. Your little bookshelf is in big trouble: it’s sagging in the middle.
It’s an important bookshelf, full of your most treasured possessions: the twelve books on meditation you bought last year, your high school yearbooks, the souvenirs you got on that trip to India in your twenties, and the encyclopedias you will never get rid of, no matter how much faster the internet is.
You could do some decluttering, but everything on that shelf is really special to you. You couldn’t bear to part with any of it. You decide it would be better to buy a second bookshelf—then you’ll have more space for your mementos and knickknacks. You leap out of bed and call your boyfriend. You convince him to get brunch and do a little shopping with you at the playground for adults that is IKEA. I-K-E-A. Those four yellow letters are so familiar and comforting; they have accompanied you since you moved into your first apartment in college. You love everything about IKEA furniture—the slabs of wood, the instruction booklets, the adorable and unpronounceable names, the charming Swedish-ness of it all.
The car is ready: the trunk empty so it can be filled with IKEA treasures. You realize you could also probably do with some new saucepans and bedsheets, and maybe a new TV stand, and actually a cute coffee table would really spruce up the living room. You clutch the dog-eared IKEA catalogue like a treasure map.
You pull into the parking lot and drag your boyfriend toward the big blue box. This is what dreams are made of. The adventure begins. It’s a pretty easy adventure, compared to, say, rock climbing or skydiving—all you have to do is follow the little arrows on the floor. IKEA is in control, leading you down this path, and you are loving it. You round the first bend and grab an extra catalogue with childlike glee. You gaze at the model apartments, all there to show that true happiness comes from buying sleek storage containers.
You’re hungry for more. You see the bedroom section in the distance, with a sign above it that reads like something a family therapist might say: SEPARATE WITHOUT DIVIDING. By the time you get to the kids’ section, your legs are starting to get sore. You’ve been wandering around for two hours already and your basket is basically empty, except for a tartan rug, three packets of paper napkins with reindeer on them, and two plastic ladles, which will come in handy if you ever decide to go on one of those soup-based diets. You are tired, but you feel alive. An instinct deep within you propels you around the store and whispers, Spend more money!
You try to pick up the pace, but then you see the cutest little stuffed crocodiles and you have to stop. Your boyfriend rolls his eyes and says, “So, is this guy going to end up like the kangaroo from last year, covered in dust at the back of the closet?” Clearly he doesn’t understand how important this is to you, so you run over his toes with your cart and pretend not to hear him yelp. With a burst of newfound energy generated by a combination of sweat and frustration, you veer away from the arrows and chart your own course. You cut the wrong way across the office supply section, knocking over a fancy swivel chair that gets in your way. You make it to the lighting aisle, where you gnaw on the end of your mini pencil in an attempt to calm down, but it’s no use. Now you’re among the storage containers, you’ve lost sight of familiar landmarks, and your trusty catalogue was left behind on a pile of napkin holders. You’re enraged. You start grabbing things left, right, and center. Nothing can stop you. When your boyfriend asks how you plan to get all this stuff home, you point a screw gun at him. What is happening to you? You’ve turned into a monster. You know you should try to control yourself, but this feeling cannot be tamed. On most days you can wax lyrical about the dangers of consumerism, but not today. Right now you have an insatiable need to buy stuff.
This day has turned into a disaster. The coffee table in the catalogue has misled you—the measurements are all wrong. You hear someone yell at the other end of the aisle, “Why didn’t you measure first?” The TV stand that looked so classy in the catalogue looks cheap and plywood-y in real life. And you recognize the funky coatrack from the last Airbnb you stayed in, and you hate giving in to conformity. You can’t slow down now. You grab four cranberry-vanilla candles, two packets of plates, and a plastic yucca plant, which you hide in your yellow cart. You can’t control yourself. Your boyfriend stares at you like you’re crazy. You glare back at him as he breaks a halogen lightbulb by throwing it into the cart. By the time you approach the self-service checkout, things are reaching the boiling point. Your boyfriend won’t stop telling you he doesn’t want to spend the next month messing around with a screwdriver every night. The rest of your desired items are waiting for you to find them somewhere between aisles B18 and D24, according to the reference numbers you carefully noted on your phone. Finally you can see light at the end of the tunnel.
But then, to your horror, you realize that your phone is dead. You have to either walk down every aisle again or kiss all of your precious furniture goodbye. If you leave now, your thirst will never be quenched. You. Must. Keep. Going.
The next part is a blur. There are tears, insults, despair, and then a receipt for $278.68 and a cart full of completely useless objects. You get into your car. You are fuming and your relationship is a wreck, all because you wanted to buy some stupid shelves. It’s 7:14 p.m. The traffic on the way home gives you plenty of time to reflect on your sore muscles, your sweat-drenched clothes, your despair, and your hatred of blue and yellow.
What Would Spinoza Have to Say About All of This?
It’s important to say, off the bat, that Spinoza wouldn’t have been caught dead in IKEA. But Spinoza—or Baruch, if you’re on first-name terms—had some thoughts about desire, virtue, and adversity that are going to help you out of your post-IKEA funk.
First of all, Spinoza can help you understand how your humanity works so you can better understand your actions. He had a very comforting theory that every individual is characterized by a “conatus,” which sounds like an unfortunate condition but is basically just an urge or a drive—the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning and makes you appreciate life’s pleasures.
Okay, let’s back up for a second. According to Spinoza, people are part of nature, which is made by God. We are all created by the divine, meaning we all contain an energy that came straight from heaven, and we work hard to protect that energy. The conatus is our protected zone; we’re ready to do just about anything to keep it intact. It’s what makes us natural beings and not video game characters. This conatus has another name, which is less fun to say but maybe easier to understand: desire. This is where Spinoza becomes a great therapist. If he’d had a podcast, it would’ve been the perfect thing to listen to during an afternoon of shopping. Spinoza’s philosophy is that your desires, wishes, and passions drive you and make you who you are. It’s pointless to fight these forces. It’s impossible to separate yourself from them, because they are your very essence. You shouldn’t think of desire as something negative. Having desire is good! It means you’re in the VIP section of all organic life forms. Spinoza wrote that “desire is the essence of man,” and we’ll include women in that too.
It’s impossible to let go of desire, or to constrain and manage it, because the conatus is all-powerful. Bad credit is no match for a person’s conatus. Neither is an apartment overflowing with IKEA furniture. The only thing that can stop it? Death. Desire will be with you for every step of your life. But you don’t just wake up in the morning full of desire. It doesn’t exist in the abstract, blowing around in the wind. In fact, desire reveals itself through certain situations—when you’re at IKEA daydreaming in front of a giant pile of paper napkins, for example. Desire is only activated in certain contexts, but once it’s active, it sets your thoughts alight.
- On Sale
- Nov 12, 2019
- Hachette Audio